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Indian Muslim Women’s Struggles for Gender Justice: Socio-Cultural Impediments

Socio-Cultural Impediments to Indian Muslim Women’s Struggles for Gender Justice

By Yoginder Sikand

Sunday, January 03, 2010


The numerous struggles of Indian women for gender justice have been well-documented by academics and scholar-activists. Several Indian women can be counted among key present-day feminist theoreticians, whose works are widely known and acknowledged internationally. Yet, broadly speaking, the women’s movement in India, as in several other ‘developing’; countries, remains, to a large extent, elitist. Almost all of its articulate spokeswomen are highly-educated ‘high’ caste Hindus, who form only a relatively small proportion of the Indian population.

This relatively elitist nature of India’s women’s movement explains, to a great extent, why women from the country’s most deprived and marginalized communities, particularly the Dalits or so-called ‘Untouchables’, the Adivasis or Tribal, indigenous people, and Muslims, have been largely left out of its purview, and are hardly to be found in its leadership positions. On the whole, and barring a few exceptions, ‘high’ caste Hindu women’s activists have evinced little or no interest in the particular concerns of women from these communities. There is no doubt that deeply-ingrained, and often unacknowledged, prejudice against these communities is a major reason for this. With regard to Muslim women, widespread anti-Muslim prejudice prevalent in the wider Indian society must be counted as one of the major factors for the perceived general lack of interest on the part of ‘secular’ women’s groups in Muslim women’s issues and problems. To add to this is the fear that taking up Muslim women’s concerns might invite the opposition of conservative ulema or Muslim clerics and stoke inter-communal controversy. This sidelining by ‘secular’ women’s groups of Muslim women’s concerns has been compounded by the tendency, boosted by the state, conservative Muslim leaders and the Hindu Right, to perceive Muslims solely in religious terms. Because of this, often ‘secular’ women’s groups interventions with regard to Muslim women focus simply on issues related to their religious identity (especially, certain aspects of Muslim Personal Law that are seen to militate against women), rather than on their manifold social, economic, and educational problems and concerns. On the other hand, it is also a fact that certain forms of feminism that are seen to demand complete equality (as opposed to gender justice) for women and men, and that are seen as anti-religion, have, understandably, not attracted many self-identified Muslim women (as opposed to a few highly-educated women of Muslim background whose ‘Muslim-ness’ is simply cultural or incidental and of no particular consequence or importance).

India’s Muslims, officially estimated at almost 200 million, make up the world’s largest population after Indonesia. Although numerous in absolute terms, they form only around 13 per cent of the total Indian population. Many Muslims, however, contest these figures, and claim that the census authorities have deliberately under-reported their population. Relatively little has been written about India’s Muslim women and their struggles for gender justice. While considerable literature exists about the myriad economic and social, educational problems of Indian Muslim women, as also about the particular problems that they face arising out of Muslim Personal Law, little has been written about how the social and cultural context of the Indian Muslim community as a whole acts as a major constraint in efforts to mobilize them for their rights and for gender justice.

This paper seeks, in a modest way, to address this lacuna in our understanding of Indian Muslim women’s efforts for gender justice. The paper uses the term ‘gender justice’ as distinct from ‘gender equality’, in that the latter implies sameness in status and roles between the genders, something that many Muslim (and other) women might not actually desire or see as religiously appropriate.

The term ‘justice’ is more fluid, and can be construed in different ways to indicate different, often contrasting, notions of gender relations, status and roles, and need not necessarily imply sameness between the genders.

Indian Muslim women are routinely portrayed in the media as helpless creatures, as completely lacking agency, and as cruelly oppressed by their men and ‘obscurantist’, sternly ‘patriarchal’ male ulema.

Ultimately, the source of their oppression is sought to be located in Islam itself, which is projected as an allegedly patriarchal religion, supposedly hostile to women’s rights and gender-justice. In this reading, the socio-cultural context within which Muslim women live and operate, which heavily influences their ability to articulate their demands for justice, is totally ignored. The central argument of this paper is that, contrary to media claims, it is not Islam per se that is the cause for Indian Muslim women’s overall marginalization and the visible lack of efforts to mobilize them for their rights. Rather, it argues, the cause must be located in the over-all socio-cultural context of the community (which also includes the presence and enormous influence of particular patriarchal interpretations of Islam).

The paper also argues that gender-related oppression and marginalization of Indian Muslim women cannot be seen in isolation from the overall economic, political, and educational marginalistion of the Indian Muslim community, or large sections thereof. It cannot be seen as stemming simply from patriarchal interpretations of Islam or only due to patriarchal customs, practices and laws specific to the Indian Muslim community. In other words, the paper suggests, the struggle for gender justice for Indian Muslim women must necessarily be part of a wider struggle against the overall marginalization of the Indian Muslims as a whole.

The paper begins with a general over-view of the social conditions of the Muslims of India. It then goes on to examine how these conditions shape or produce particular impediments facing Muslim women that severely constrain efforts to mobilize for gender justice.

The Socio-Cultural Context of the Indian Muslim Community

Sectarian Affiliation and Differences

Despite being often projected as a monolith, India’s Muslims are extremely heterogenous. Some 85% of them are Sunnis, the rest being Shias. In turn, the Sunnis are divided on the basis of allegiance to different schools of jurisprudence or fiqh, most being Hanafis, with a small minority of Shafis and Ahl-e Hadith, who do not abide by ‘imitation’ or taqlid of any fiqh school. India’s Hanafi Sunnis are also divided on the basis of school of thought or sect (maslak). Probably a slim majority follows traditions associated with various Sufi silsilahs or orders and saints and the cults centred on their shrines. These cults are often heavily influenced by local, or, for want of a better term, ‘Hindu’, beliefs and practices. Another large section among the Indian Sunni Hanafis are associated with the more scripturalist Deobandi tradition and the now global revivalist Tablighi Jama‘at that is linked to the Deobandi tradition. The Deobandis do not oppose Sufism per se but only practices that are seen as ‘un-Islamic’ which are often associated with local Sufi cults. The Islamist Jama‘at-e Islami, founded in 1941 by the well-known scholar- activist Syed Abul ‘Ala Maududi, also has a considerable following among some sections of the Indian Sunni community.

India’s Shias are divided into three major groups. By far the most numerous of these are the Ithna Ashari or Imami Shias, followers of a chain of twelve Imams. The other two major Shia groups in India are both Ismailis, followers of a chain of seven Imams—the Bohras, or the Mustalian Ismailis, and the Khojahs, or the Nizari Ismailis. The Bohras, in turn, are divided into five different sects, each of which follows its own spiritual leader or dai-e mutlaq.

Each of these various Indian Muslim groups operates as an independent community. They are, generally, endogamous, and have their own separate community organizations, including mosques and madrasas. Each of these groups claims to represent the sole ‘authentic’ understanding of Islam. Sectarian divisions continue to run very deep among the Indian Muslim community, and there has been no serious effort to seek to bring the different sects together on a common platform to address issues of common concern. This factor of the overall Indian Muslim community being so heavily fractured on the basis of fiqh and maslak acts a major hurdle not just for Muslim unity, but also for efforts to mobilize Indian Muslim women for gender equality transcending sectarian lines. Often the salience of sectarian divisions and differences causes gender issues to be silenced from public discourse.

Caste and Class Divisions

Although Islam does not countenance caste and caste-based divisions and discrimination, like all other communities in India the Indian Muslims are divided on the basis of caste. There are literally hundreds of Muslim castes (biraderi or zat) across India, each of which operates as an endogamous group. The vast majority of these castes are descendants of converts from ‘low’ caste Hindu groups. Despite their conversion to Islam, in some cases many centuries ago, their overall social and economic conditions have remained pathetic. Many of these caste-groups are extremely poor, having little or no land of their own. Their levels of literacy are among the lowest in the country as a whole.

On the other hand are some caste-like groups that claim foreign (Arab, Iranian and Central Asian) descent, such as the Syeds, Shaikhs, Pathans and Mughals. They form only a relatively small minority among the Indian Muslims. Generally, they see themselves as ‘superior’, based on their claims of being descendants of India’s former Muslim rulers and feudal elites, and hence their title of Ashraf or ‘noble (or, in Arabic, shurafa). They are heavily over-represented among the Muslim elites, far beyond what their numbers warrant. Most Muslim political and religious leaders are drawn from these castes. Typically, they are seen as taking little or no interest at all in the manifold problems of their ‘low’ caste co-religionists or in articulating their concerns. It is thus hardly surprising that the particular social, economic and educational problems of ‘low’ caste Muslim women (who form the vast majority of Indian Muslim women) are given little or no attention by the largely ashraf Muslim community leadership.

Caste and class continue to overlap in India even today. The vast majority of India’s Muslims, being descendants of ‘low’ caste converts, continue to be characterized by extremely low-levels of literacy, endemic poverty, high rates of unemployment and poor living conditions. Their overall status is said to be even worse than that of the ‘Hindu’ ‘low’ castes. In addition to the general indifference and apathy of ‘high’ caste Muslims, they also face various forms of discrimination from the wider Hindu society and from agencies of the state. Typically, the localities where they live are starved of any form of state-funded facilities. Their womenfolk are characterized by abysmal levels of literacy. In some of these communities, the female literacy rate is less than even 5 per cent, with young girls (and boys) being compelled to work outside the home in order to help their families make their ends meet and barely survive. Understandably, therefore, for most of them, it is daily bread-and-butter issues of simple survival that are of primary concern, not gender justice within their own families.

In most struggles to mobilise women for gender justice across India (and elsewhere, too) middle-class, modern-educated women have taken a leading role. They have set up organizations and publications for this purpose, and have also provided these struggles with direction and theoretical focus. In this regard, the relative absence of major or noteworthy Indian Muslim women’s struggles for gender justice can be related to the very small Muslim middle-class and intelligentsia in India as a whole, some regional variations notwithstanding.

A massive section of the Muslim middle-class, as well as feudal elites, especially in north India, where the bulk of the Indian Muslims are concentrated, migrated (either on their own volition or out of compulsion) to Pakistan when British India was divided into the new states of Pakistan and India in 1947. Several women among this middle-class had played a key role in Muslim women’s struggles for education and economic uplift in the period leading to India’s Partition. The loss of the bulk of the liberal middle-class in 1947 left the Indian Muslims, particularly in the north which was most affected by the Partition, leaderless. The majority of the north Indian Muslims who remained behind in India was from the ‘low’ castes. The place of the middle-class and feudal elites who had claimed to represent them prior to the Partition was now assumed largely by the religiously-conservative ulema, whose views on women and women’s issues were hardly conducive to Muslim women’s mobilization for their rights and for gender justice. The Indian state, too, saw it expedient to accept these ulema as the ‘representatives’ and spokesmen of the Muslim community as they made minimal demands on the state in terms of resource allocation to Muslims for their social and economic development—their major demands being symbolic or related to religious matters, such as patronizing the Urdu language (spoken by a large section of Indian Muslims), protecting Muslim Personal Law and providing facilities for Hajis.

In the years after 1947, a small modern-educated middle-class has emerged among Muslims in some parts of the country. Typically, however, they do not take any active interest in the problems of the poor Muslims, including their womenfolk. The quest for upward social mobility and material acquisition appear to be their primary concern. In these times of mounting Islamophobia, their neglect of the rest of the community, of largely poor, ‘low’ caste Muslims who live in slum ghettos in urban areas and in villages, and their reluctance to vocally champion Muslim interests or denounce anti-Muslim discrimination has also to do with the fear of being branded as ‘communal’ and ‘fundamentalist’ by the largely Hindu middle-classes whom they seek to bond, professionally and socially, with—efforts to articulate even legitimate Muslim demands and concerns being often dismissed as akin to supporting ‘fundamentalism’ by many non-Muslims in India today.

Priorities of Indian Muslim Community Organisations

It is estimated that more than 90 per cent of funds mobilized from within the Muslim community in the form of zakat and sadqah go to fund madrasas and mosques, which number in the tens of thousands across India. Partly because of the low levels of literacy in the Muslim community as a whole and the relatively small size of the liberal Muslim middle class, the number of Muslim community organizations engaged forms of community service (including those that focus on women’s issues) other than strictly religious is relatively negligible. That the overwhelming majority of Muslim NGOs in India concern themselves almost wholly only with provision of religious education owes, among other factors, to the social influence of the ulema, the perceived lack of religious awareness among the Muslim masses and, as many Muslims see it, the perceived threats to Muslim faith and identity in India today.

Admittedly, a few Muslim organizations are indeed engaged in providing education and vocational skills to Muslim women, but hardly any of these have taken up issues related to patriarchy within the Muslim community as a major focus. Not surprisingly, therefore, most of the few Muslim women’s organizations whose particular focus is on interrogating patriarchal prejudices and practices have to rely almost entirely on funds from outside the community-such as from Indian and international NGOs. This inevitably opens them to the charge of being ‘agents’ of ‘anti-Islamic’ forces.

Issues related to Muslim women’s economic and educational problems, rights and advancement do not form a priority at all in the agenda of almost all Muslim organizations that claim to speak for the Muslims of India, and whose claims are often accepted as such by the state and the media. The leadership of all these organizations is entirely male. Some of them, such as the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, do have a token women’s membership, but, inevitably, these handpicked women remain silent and have no influence at all.

The silence of such Muslim organizations on issues of Muslim women owes not simply to deeply-rooted patriarchal biases—although this is a central reason. Equally important is the factor of mounting Islamophobia and anti-Muslim discrimination, violence directed against Muslims by Hindu chauvinist groups, often abetted by agencies of the state, and perceived threats to Muslim faith and identity. These are seen as such overwhelming problems and of such immediate priority that they have tended to overshadow other issues afflicting the community (and not just Muslim women’s issues) as reflected in the discourse and demands of these Muslim organizations. The unenviable predicament of being a beleaguered minority that sees itself as a victim and as heavily discriminated against has, understandably, caused issues related to mere survival as well as those related to communal identity to take centre-stage in the Muslim community’s discourses and demands. At the same time, some critics argue that these Muslim organizations and their leaders seem to have a vested interest in keeping Muslim discourses and demands made on the wider society and the state restricted to issues related to Muslim communal identity or those that involve conflict with the dominant Hindus for, mobilizing the community on these issues, they are able to maintain their position as leaders. It is argued that were these leaders and the organiations they are associated with to take up the myriad social and economic problems and concerns of the Muslim masses (including Muslim women) in place of ‘communal’, ‘symbolic’ or ‘religious’ issues, their own vested interests would be harmed. In other words, so the oft-heard allegation goes, these leaders have a vested interest in maintaining Muslim poverty, illiteracy and ‘backwardness’ (including that of Muslim women), for in their absence they would be unable to play on their religious sentiments and take advantage of their ‘ignorance’ in order to garner support for themselves in their role as putative leaders of the community. In addition, with a few very rare exceptions, elected Muslim politicians are seen as unable, indeed unwilling, to take up many Muslim concerns (including that of Muslim women) and to take an independent stand in this regard as they are generally members of Hindu-dominated political parties. They find themselves as more answerable to their political parties than to their Muslim voters. They also probably realize that being too vocal about the problems that Muslim women face from their own menfolk would cost them the loss of many Muslim votes as well as considerable opposition, which they do not wish to court.

The overwhelming concern of Muslim organizations in large parts of India with religious and identity-related issues (to the relative neglect of other issues, such as the problems of Muslim women) has much to do with widespread and mounting anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic sentiments fanned, among others, by viscerally anti-Muslim Hindu chauvinists and large sections of the Indian media. These forces are seen as having an interest in constantly provoking Muslims by seeking to embroil them in controversies over perceived threats to their identity or that involve conflicts with Hindus, for this inevitably diverts the Muslims’ attention from issues of community reform and development or from making substantive demands on the state, thus reinforcing Muslim marginalisation and subjugation. At the same time, constantly raking up controversies that inevitably involve conflict between Hindus and Muslims serves as the principal means for the Hindu Right to garner Hindu support.

In other words, therefore, both the anti-Muslim Hindu Right as well as sections of the Muslim leadership are seen as being jointly complicit in forcing issues related to the economic, political, social and educational marginalization of Muslims (including Muslim women) to be overshadowed by religious and identity-related issues and controversies that involve Hindu-Muslim conflict. This has created a climate which has made it even more difficult for Muslim women to stress their concerns and problems and to struggle for equality and justice.

State Policies vis-à-vis Muslims

As even numerous official reports, commissioned by the state, the Indian Muslims continue to suffer considerable deprivation, indeed discrimination, at the hands of agencies of the state. This is reflected, for instance, in the very low levels of state-funded provision in Muslim-dominated localities and regions. The benefits of most of the very few programmes that the state has instituted for Muslims have been cornered by a small class of elites, and has not benefited the masses. The state has instituted no specific provision for Muslim-women. The attitude of the state must be seen as a major factor in shaping the context which Indian Muslim women face that limits their educational and employment prospects and that severely constrains their ability to have their voices and concerns heard.

Patriarchy and the Ulema

Patriarchy and patriarchal prejudices, needless to stress, are a phenomenon common to all the communities of India, and not specific to the Indian Muslims alone. Among numerous Muslim groups across India, certain anti-women practices are a result of the influence of the overwhelming Hindu presence and of Hindu practices and beliefs that continue to remain deeply-rooted despite their conversion to Islam. These include prohibition of widow remarriage, denial of women’s right to inheritance (despite this being provided for in Muslim Personal Law as it exists in India today), harassment of brides for dowries and even, in some cases, dowry-related murders.

Muslim-specific expressions of patriarchy are reflected in the existing, officially-recognised Muslim Personal Law statutes and in the discourse of the conservative (male) ulema. According to the Muslim Personal Law, as implemented by the Indian courts, Muslim males have the right to marry up to four women at a time without needing to seek the permission of their existing spouses. Sunni (though not Shia) husbands can also divorce their wives at will—simply by uttering the word talaq in one sitting, without needing any witnesses or having to go through any sort of process of arbitration. A few vocal Muslim women’s groups have critiqued these laws, but this has inevitably caused them to be accused by the conservative ulema and many Muslim organisations of being allegedly in league with the ‘enemies of Islam’, of being ‘irreligious’, ‘Westernised’ and ‘anti-Islamic’ and ‘anti-shariah’, of seeking to do away with Muslim Personal Law altogether and of plotting to ‘divide Muslims’.

At a time when many Muslims feel themselves under siege from various quarters, such allegations receive wide support and currency and have certainly dampened efforts by a few Muslim women’s groups to demand for a change in these laws. In part because of these fears, many Indian Muslim and secular women’s groups today are demanding not an abolition of Muslim Personal Law or the introduction of a Common Civil Code applicable to all Indian citizens, but, rather, a reformed Muslim Personal Law that is in line with their vision or version of the shariah that reflects a more gender-friendly understanding of Islam. Some such groups have come out with draft proposals for a gender-egalitarian Muslim Personal Law to replace the existing code and with a model nikah namah or marriage contract agreement that does away with what are seen as anti-women provisions of the existing Muslim Personal Law. Influenced, in part, by feminist or women-friendly interpretations of Islam produced by Muslim women’s activists in other countries, they are seeking to promote legal reforms by operating within an Islamic framework and using Islamic arguments.

These efforts to reform Muslim Personal Law from within by these women’s groups have met with no practical success. With the exception of some, most ulema probably believe that these women (who are mostly educated in secular institutions and lack classical Islamic training) do not have the capacity or the right to interpret Islam on their own. They are also seen as seeking to challenge the authority of the ulema. Most traditional ulema are wedded to the doctrine of taqlid or strict adherence to the opinions of the classical fuqaha or jurists. Muslim women’s efforts to engage in their own ijtihad to provide more women-friendly understanding of fiqh and to challenge certain patriarchal practices (such as arbitrary divorce or denial of access to worship space in mosques) that are legitimized by the dominant Hanafi school of jurisprudence are seen as a deviation from, and a challenge to, the position of the classical jurists and are thus decried as unacceptable. Because of the powerful influence that the conservative ulema exercise and their political clout, the state has consistently refused to consider any changes in the existing Muslim Personal Law as suggested by these women’s groups, which would inevitably be branded by sections of the ulema as ‘interference in the shariah’.

The growing influence of numerous Islamic movements in different parts of India today is a major force shaping prospects for Muslim women’s mobilization for their rights. Some of these are actively involved in promoting girls’ education (seeing this as Islamically-mandated) and in social reforms, critiquing certain anti-women practices that they regard as un-Islamic. At the same time, however, several other such groups uphold an extremely conservative interpretation of Islam, insisting that Muslim women veil themselves completely, remain bound in their homes, be subservient to their husbands, restrict themselves only to religious education, and so on. Needless to say, this ongoing internal contestation over normative Islam and Islamic teachings about women will prove to be a determining factor in shaping the possibilities and spaces open to Indian Muslim women to mobilize for gender justice.


This paper has sought to provide a general overview of the overall socio-cultural context of the Indian Muslim community, focusing, in particular, on how this context shapes and limits the possibilities for Indian Muslim women’s struggles for gender justice. It argues that, contrary to widely-held assumptions, it is not Islam per se but, rather this particular context (which includes the wide prevalence of certain patriarchal interpretations of Islam) that serves as the major hurdle to such struggles. In doing so, it suggests that the movement for Muslim women’s equality cannot be reduced, as some have sought to, simply to articulating alternative or gender-friendly interpretations of Islam. Although this, too, is vital, it alone cannot suffice. Without addressing the particularly dismal social, economic and educational conditions of the Indian Muslim community as a whole, and the undeniable discrimination that many Indian Muslims suffer from agencies of the state and from the wider society, efforts for meaningful transformation in the lives of Muslim women will necessarily remain limited. Without equality and justice for the Indian Muslim community as a whole, equality and justice for Indian Muslim women will continue to remain elusive.


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